With thanks to lovely Jan Capiński for the encouragement to share thoughts about this project - here are a few long, rambling paragraphs - tired, caffeine-fuelled with absolutely no interest in grammar, but wanting everyone to know what an amazing thing Adam Green made happen.
I have a tendency to throw myself into situations knowingly unprepared. I mean I knew the notes, I’d just about mastered this new English translation, I’ve sung Carmen a few times before, have a useful resting bitch face and can do a passable post-tequila impression of some flamenco-esque dance moves. But when someone asked me towards the end ‘What did you expect this project to be like?’ I admitted I’d no idea. I really hadn’t thought ahead about what it would be like. The extent of my research was glutting on 5 series of Orange is the New Black, and I’d quietly expected there might be fewer Latinos, American accents and tampon jokes down in Devon.
One thing I knew I did have, was an raw interest in how people live their lives, serve their time and attempt to develop whilst in prison. And I was happily relatively free of judgement regarding their crimes - always open to context - knowing people’s backgrounds, the circumstances, the addictions and struggles in their lives. Being open to the capacity we all have as humans to make mistakes and hope to feel that the rest of our lives are not indelibly marked by them.
What this did mean was that I went into the room on day one, with open eyes and I hope an open heart. Despite this, I never could have anticipated how much this week would surprise me.
Firstly, my gosh could these guys SING! A 14 tenor rendition of ‘when the factory bell echoes through the air’ in Act One left me totally speechless. I heard both a beautifully blended, carefully coloured sound with shimmering soft tones as well as rambunctious, dynamic chorus scenes full of life. The acting was beautiful too - at all times watching 17 characters each playing out their own individual experience, striving to tell their own stories. Throughout the week I delighted in watching people gain in confidence - making themselves vulnerable by committing to the experience and offering ideas at every turn.
One of the most moving things was watching the inmates listening to our director's instruction with such intensity. Propelled perhaps by a sense that this experience wouldn’t last forever, they listened and approached each task with a singular determination. One day when we came in, one of the prisoners was already leading a warmup - they seemed to have so much purpose, a determination to get everything out of this week that they could. Because when we leave, it’s over, and it’s back to the cells. It also makes me wonder about the difference made by having no mobiles - no distractions, the ability just to concentrate on what is happening ‘live’ right in front of you.
And after listening to instructions they immediately offer ideas; throwing themselves into the drama with both a sense of having perhaps nothing to lose, but also wanting to show us what they are capable of - proving their worth. When one guy said ‘I can’t believe how good you all are’ I felt an awful subtext of ‘I can’t believe you’re willing to come here and bother to give this amount of energy to us.’ But they could perhaps never know how much talent and skill we see in them.
One of my my favourite moments is watching an huge, stacked, heavily tattooed inmate (the cast will know him as 'Kangaroo Poo’) carrying out a slow motion scene change - lifting a table over and above his head and resting it down in super slow time. He is striving for absolute perfection of detail, shifting his weight perfectly, not rushing a moment and making the heavy table look like polystyrene. I have never watched someone be so careful, so determined. This is a common theme - as well as not judging on appearances - it is often those with tattoos, beards, and muscles who have the most overwhelming capacity for gentleness.
Someone asked - did I feel safe? A fair question given that singing as Carmen, you dance, flirt with and swirl around people that are initially strangers. Whilst of course we had to use common sense, in this project we were inviting exchange - wanting to know the participants better, rather than trying to keep our distance. But yes, I felt truly safe, respected, and supported at every turn.
We didn’t know details of anyone’s crimes - it felt totally inappropriate to ask what anyone had done - it was about individuals, human experience in this singular moment. If I could find out what their crimes were afterwards (with safe distance of risk of judging them) perhaps I would want to know, but not in morbid fascination, only in the same way that I’d want to know where they are from, what their interests are. All part of building up a bigger picture of them as individuals. In a conversation with one of the inmates, he was keen to know what we thought of them - how they were perceived. It seemed so simple - they are all just people.This idea of normality was supported by the sheer amount of laughter and good will in rehearsals. The inmates seem to have a desire to show what they are capable of, both in skill but also in kindness to each other. Wanting people to see their faces individually and not thinking of them en masse like caged animals or statistics. In the breaks, people bring in guitars and sing sensitive love songs. They show us pictures of their wives and after the show introduce us to their parents. It’s like they are saying - we are humans, people, individuals - please see that. When we hand out posters and cards at the end, share hugs and applause for every inmate, there is the sense that people were getting the recognition they perhaps never had in school/families. It is heartbreaking to overhear one prisoner admit he ‘was worried they were all thinking we were monsters”.
Lots of the time I simply forget we are in a prison - when the prison goes into lockdown over a spice (drug) overdose, or when the performance is nearly cancelled over an escaped prisoner on the roof, of course you are reminded. But most of the time we are just people making a performance, treating each other with equal respect and support. This matters for the inmates I think. In some ways there is an idea that this ‘putting on an opera' thing is something extraordinary, but in fact it is the ordinariness of it which I’m told appeals to one prisoner. Sometimes, when able to forget that we are in a prison, this could be an am dram production in a village hall.
It makes sense when many of the prisoners say they love using this project as a way to structure time. Boredom is destructive and I have always wondered how someone could be locked up and isolated for decades, stripped of self worth and limited in human interaction, then supposedly come out a better person?! Self harm and other mental health issues abound - an estimated 93% of prisoners have some kind of mental health condition. So it just seems obvious that these guys need activities, focus, structure, ambition.
As the week progressed there were two things which I loved most. In an environment that strips everyone of their personal identity, it was so good to see them as individuals. At the same time, in an institution that separates and divides, I was happy to see them come together with kindness to one other - with common endeavour.
As with every other ‘outreach' project I’ve done - it’s never a one way exchange. The prisoners encouraged me to find more colours - more truth in Carmen. I loved exploring the idea of things ‘costing’ Carmen (our director Tom’s phrase), perhaps spurred by a desire/need for things to be as real, as far from a false pantomime as possible. To find as much of the drama and emotions that might relate to any of our lives. Decisions made, loves lost, risks taken, lives at stake - all seem the more apt in this environment.
This experience wasn’t without ‘moral maze’ questions. Things I asked myself driving home included: what about the victims? What if the normal sense of rehabilitation doesn’t exist, as inmates may never be let out? Why should we prioritise the development of criminals over those living faultlessly in poverty? When we leave, where does this lead? Was the project just escapism? (haha) How can there be continuity to this experience?
I’m not sure I have answers yet to those questions, but walking around the rest of the prisoners’ cells, seeing only a name and photo, made me aware of the capability, talent and promise I was sure to be locked up behind each door. And the feeling that to encourage self-worth and fruition of these beautiful lives is such a valuable thing. The inmates in Carmen showed a beautiful humanity in tough circumstances. One of the guards was so right when he said following the performance, “What this has proved is that you ALL have value - and you must never forget that.”